Thursday, February 18, 2010

Update from Richard in Pune

Having watched tens of thousands of dazed, dusty people pass under my windows as they walked uptown from the wreckage of the Towers, hearing still that uncanny silence of 9/11, I don’t think I’ll ever be touched as nearly by terrorism, but the bombing of the German Bakery hits very close to what is for many a second, or third, home here. This sort of thing is not supposed to happen in Pune. Pune is “safe”, “normal”, a haven where in between being taught and practicing and absorbing yoga, one is privileged to observe the rich Indian family life, eat Indian food, be part of the orderly disorder and disorderly order of India, where it seems that nothing will work yet everything does.

I didn’t know about the attack until the next morning; some others I know heard or felt the blast; a surgeon from New York had been in the bakery not long before. Someone knows a friend of an Italian woman, studying meditation at Osho, one of the nine dead.

Things are changed, at least a little and as must be. The Monday morning after, we gathered around Guruji – a reassuring presence – in the Institute lobby. A student from Singapore brought him flowers for the Year of the Tiger; Stephanie Quirk talked about the pair of saving-from-extinction tigers Guruji has adopted. At evening class, Chandru announced students are not to gather outside the gate, by the cocoanut water man and the vegetable woman, least R.I.M.Y.I. become one of those danger magnets where foreigners congregate, “soft targets” as the Times of India calls them. A guard may search your bag at the gate now, but with a smile and a friendly sidewise nod of the head.

What’s important, of course, is the teaching, and that is unchanged, perhaps even more intense, more compelling for being more compelled. In each class Geetaji mentions her coming retirement, and implores, demands, wills us to absorb her lifetime accumulation of knowledge and skill.

We’ve moved into rajas with backbend week, and the weather is appropriately hot and clear-sunny. Geetaji made of the placement of the foot, our presence in our heels, a teaching of Dharana. Do with the body, she said, let the brain be quiet. Backbends are hard work, but the truly difficult action is not just to push, Geeta says, to do; instead, we have to remain inside, senses drawn within to observe. Be with yourself, she says, be with your soul. A long string of Urdhva Dhanurasanas is taught almost entirely from the feet: heels which do not leave the floor, a strong platform of the big toe mound, inner ankle bones lifted, outer edges of the foot cutting knifelike into the floor: Dharana. Afterwards, in Paschimottanasana, legs wide apart, back muscles spreading from center to the side, the frontal armpit chest drawing us forward, Geeta -- teaching purely in terms of the body -- creates a profound quiet in the mind.

In the Ladies’ Class Geeta has students cue up to work at the tall and small stools, the stump and the roller and the Viparita Karini plank. That afternoon Horst from Germany, Hendrik from Poland, Jerry from the U.K. and I replay the setups, adjusting one another.

Last Friday, in one of her truly magical Pranayama classes, Geetaji has us find space at the base of the neck, where it joins the dorsal spine, and at the top, at the base of the skull. The very physical instructions become a bridge to combining Sama (balance) and Sthira (firmness) in our sitting, and a bridge to the Bhagavad Gita, VI:13, when Lord Krishna instructs Arjuna in meditation. Look for stillness first, Geeta says, then within that, find freedom. With this alignment of the neck, the brain becomes quiet, doesn’t wander, she says. We practice an adjustment which brings us deeper into Pratyhara.

Gloria Goldberg is here, arranging for tickets for Geetaji and the assistants to fly to Portland for the May convention for Certified Iyengar Yoga teachers. Often in the morning, Guruji works an important politician, deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal, who’s accompanied by a dozen Pune police offers and security men. Pune has done what New York has not, banning plastic bags; you have to carry a cloth or jute bag to the vegetable seller.

Geeta talks, in nearly every class, about making us understand, passing on the knowledge she holds so surely. She is retiring, she says; sometimes she tells the assistants, No, don’t make them do, don’t help them – I have told them for years, if they haven’t got it now … More often, though, she reaches deeper inside, makes her instructions even more precise, brings more fervor. “That is why I shout!” she says. The Iyengars will be away next week, for a family wedding, and we all talk about that. The idea that Geetaji might not be teaching the next time we return to Pune, though, is more difficult to grasp. A teacher friend tells me, Even if Geeta isn’t teaching, I will always come back, to see Guruji. And somehow that, at least, seems eternal.

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